Universities face higher targets in new HE access plan

Irish universities have to meet revised intake targets for priority groups and spell out annually what steps they are taking to meet them, under the latest National Access Plan, unveiled on Wednesday 31 August. Failure to meet the new targets could result in financial penalties.

The plan, covering 2022-28, wants more progress on increasing the intake of students from three groups – those who are socio-economically disadvantaged, those from the Traveller and Roma communities and those with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities.

It also wants more progress on flexibility of provision, with a raised target for admission of mature students from socio-economically disadvantaged areas.

The plan – published by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science – says that progress has been made over the past few years but much more needs to be done.

The most recent data show that young people from affluent areas are twice as likely to enrol in higher education as those from disadvantaged areas. The new target for the transition rate between school and higher education for people in socio-economically disadvantaged areas is 54% compared with 42% at present. A fifth of all disadvantaged new entrants should be mature students, compared with 11% at present.

The plan proposes to develop the evidence base for access, participation and success for a number of specific cohorts within the socio-economically disadvantaged group.

Included, for example, could be those who have experienced homelessness, survivors of domestic violence, carers, lone parents, migrants, refugees, long-term social welfare dependants, and those with experience of the care system or the criminal justice system.

The Irish Traveller community and the smaller Roma community are also targeted in the plan. At present about 1% of Irish Travellers have a third-level qualification compared to 55% of the general adult population. In the past academic year only 33 Irish Travellers enrolled in higher education. The new target is 150, which would represent 0.32% of all entrants compared with 0.07% of all new entrants at present.

One area of substantial progress

The one area where substantial progress has been made is the number of students with disabilities in higher education. The original target of 8% four years ago has been reached and surpassed, and currently 12.4% of all students have disabilities.

For those with specific disabilities such as physical mobility, deaf or hard of hearing, and blind or with vision impairment, the original targets have all been exceeded.

The plan sets new targets to increase participation to 16% of all new entrants but also to have better and more flexible ways of learning.

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris has announced an additional €35 million (US$35 million) over the course of the seven-year plan, bringing the total investment to €98 million. Of this, €12 million will be set aside to strengthen ‘universal design’ for students in higher education, including those with autism, and to enhance opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities.

The minister said the plan had, for the first time, put a very specific emphasis on participation and successful conclusion of higher education.

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